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THE PLAY that best sums up Jake Plummer's shaky two years as the Broncos' quarterback is one that put him in the team's record book. During the third quarter of a 33-14 win over Indianapolis on Jan. 2, Plummer threw a 23-yard pass to tight end Jeb Putzier; with the completion Plummer broke John Elway's 11-year-old record for passing yards in a season, but it didn't generate much love from the sold-out crowd at INVESCO Field. Other than the shouts from Plummer's friends, there was only a smattering of cheers following the P.A. announcement of his accomplishment.
That Plummer can laugh about the incident now says all you need to know about how he has accepted the unenviable task of trying to succeed Elway. "My friends said they couldn't believe how tough this city is, but I realize those are the expectations here," says Plummer, who finished 2004 with 4,089 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, the latter tying a franchise mark held by Elway. "These fans will be the same way five years from now."
In the meantime the fans will be looking for more leadership and consistent play from Plummer. Though the Broncos have won 70.4% of the regular-season games he has started, what jumps out are his interceptions (20 last year, including a total of six in consecutive games in early December) and two wild-card playoff losses, including last season's 49-24 drubbing by the Colts. The fans' scrutiny figures to be even harsher this year.
The general feeling around the organization, however, is that this year Plummer, who spent six seasons with the Cardinals before moving to Denver as a free agent, will have a better understanding of the offense as well as his supporting cast. "I'd be surprised if Jake didn't have a great season," says coach Mike Shanahan. "Now that he's had two years here, he doesn't have to think about what to do in this system. He can just play."
Plummer says he's never felt more comfortable in the Denver offense. This spring he quickly put the rocky moments of 2004 out of his mind--flipping off a fan in a December game at INVESCO, which resulted in a $5,000 fine, was one--and focused on becoming a better quarterback. Most of his off-season prep time was spent studying defenses with quarterbacks coach Pat McPherson and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The coaches schooled Plummer on the subtleties of some schemes and on reading the movements of linebackers and safeties who roam near the line of scrimmage. Plummer had done similar homework in the past, but this time he was probing more deeply into how the defenses work and considering various options to avoid making mistakes.
On the practice field his attention to detail appears to be paying off. Instead of forcing passes into coverage, Plummer is throwing the ball away more often. "You can see that he's trying to not be perfect," wide receiver Rod Smith says. "That's a hard thing for him, because when he was in Arizona, he spent so much of his career forcing things. But he's learning that he doesn't have to do that here."
If Plummer can correct his bad habits and not suffer a relapse during the season, the Denver offense will flourish. Though the Broncos ranked fifth in the league in total offense, they were terrible in two key categories: red-zone efficiency (28th in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on only 45.3% of their opportunities inside the 20) and turnover margin (tied for 24th, at -9). Plummer got most of the blame for those lousy stats, to the point that some in the Denver media speculated late last season about whether Shanahan would pay the $6 million bonus the quarterback was due in March or let him leave as a free agent.
Shanahan says that bringing back Plummer was never a question. But everybody, including Plummer, knows that it's time for the quarterback to live up to his $40 million contract and his reputation as the crafty Snake. "I'm still geared to make plays, and you can't take that away from me," Plummer says. "But I know that I have to pick my moments now. I've learned that I can't be Superman." --J.C.
If it weren't for the Ravens' Ray Lewis and the Bears' Brian Urlacher, Al Wilson would be the middle linebacker everybody talks about. A seventh-year player who has been known to knock ballcarriers silly, the 6-foot 240-pounder has tremendous speed and instincts. Wilson has gone to the Pro Bowl three times, and in 2004 he had one of his typical years: 105 tackles, 21/2 sacks and two interceptions.